An abbreviated list of things Peter Parker knows:
1. Lymphocytes produce antibodies; they are found in increased numbers in the presence of a viral infection.
2. The lizard guy that’s been slithering around Manhattan recently has an English accent.
3. Hematopoiesis refers to the creation of blood from progenitor stem cells in the bone marrow.
4. Death hurt. Resurrection was worse.
5. Tony Stark is avoiding him.
(Or perhaps he is the one who is avoiding Tony Stark.)
In preparation for tomorrow’s anatomy and physiology test in second period, they’ve assembled in Peter’s room is various states of reclination. Ned has sprawled across the bottom bunk of the bed, face half-obscured by a hulk plushie serving as a pillow. MJ has taken the rolling chair, feet propped up on the disheveled desk, textbook in her lap as she reads out practice questions. Occasionally orange dust floats down from where Peter is stuck to the ceiling, eating hot cheetos upside down.
“How do we know the lizard man isn’t just a harmless furry?” Ned asks, flopping over like a dead fish to address Peter.
“He eats people,” replies Peter.
“Some people eat human flesh to cope, Peter,” MJ says, and all of them snort out a laugh.
“You said he’s British?” asks Ned.
“Dunno. Something like that,” says Peter, crunching.
“Pass the cheetos.”
Peter rolls up the bag and drops it squarely on MJ’s open book. “You’d think that being an official Avenger now would garner you a bit more of a challenge than some posh lizard,” she says, passing the bag on to Ned.
“Oh, well.” On the ceiling, Peter shrugs. He’s glad, abruptly, that she can’t see his face from this angle. Hopes his voice betrays nothing. He’s getting better at being impenetrable, these days. The more there is to keep in, the stronger the dam is, maybe. “It be like that sometimes.”
She goes back to the book. “What is the functional unit of the kidney?”
“Nephron,” Ned and Peter answer in tandem.
“God, I’m so fucking bored,” says Ned, shifting restlessly. “I wish aliens would invade again or something.”
Peter says nothing. The cheetos are thrown back up to him, and the catch reminds him to breathe. He takes solace, sometimes, in the fact that he was the only one of them taken out by Thanos’s snap. Everyone lost at least someone—Ned’s brothers and mom, both of MJ’s parents—but at least his friends don’t have to know what he knows. They didn’t have to feel what he felt. Loss of another is one thing. But loss of the self, the brutality of it—
He’s not thinking about that anymore. He must remember that.
“When are you getting your next Avengers mission?” Ned asks.
Again, Peter mimes an unaffected shrug. “Whenever the next crisis comes, I guess.”
“I still can’t fucking believe you went to space without me,” Ned groans out.
Peter doesn’t reply. This is a kind of silence he’s learning to perfect. Around his friends, around May, around himself in the early hours of the morning when he’s staring at the wall and the force of it all is closing his throat the way it did on Titan, in those last few moments. Say nothing. If it’s not in words it isn’t real. He’s always been one to vocalize, to talk himself or Karen through a problem until it was solved, but now he knows the secret. Say nothing. Say nothing, and it’ll all fade.
MJ glances up at him. He looks away.
“The first stage of primary hemostasis is…” she asks, flipping a page.
“Vascular spasm.” Peter nearly knocks himself off the ceiling with the force of his answer. He dangles for a moment, one hand still stuck to the plaster, and then MJ throws a rubber band ball at his head. He hits the ground laughing. It all almost feels real.
He’s looking forward to the day when he’ll be able to look May in the eye without wanting to apologize. Without thinking only of his absence. The weight of it all, again, on his chest. On hers. Without thinking of that far away place. Surely, that day will come.
(Because he knows the secret, now. Say nothing, say nothing.)
May works second shift on Tuesdays, so he makes spaghetti and leaves her a serving in the microwave. He likes to wait for her to come home before he heads out on patrol. Another apology. They eat together, watch something stupid on TV, wear collagen face masks that are decorated like jungle animals. If he squints, it’s like it was before.
Then he puts on the suit to head out and he’s back on Titan, feeling himself come undone. Swallowing back the taste of ash on his tongue.
“Everything okay?” May asks, watching him from the hallway as he inspects the dark circles under his eyes in the bathroom mirror. “You know you don’t have to go out every night. If it’s too much, with school and your college applications, you don’t have to—”
“I do,” he says quietly.
“I’m sure Tony wouldn’t mind if you took a day off.”
“It’s not about him,” he replies, expression suddenly sharp-edged.
May crosses her arms, looking taken aback. Again, he fights the urge to let out another sorry. She inspects him for a long moment, until he looks away. “You don’t seem to be spending as much time with him as you used to.”
“I’m just busy.” He shrugs, trying for a smile. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees success in the mirror. “Like you said. College and senior year and stuff.”
She steps forward, placing a warm hand on the nape of his neck. He leans into the touch more than he intends. Something aches, vaguely, in the core of him. He thinks, again, of what this apartment must have felt like with only her in it.
“I just think you should be getting more sleep,” she says.
“I’ll come home early tonight,” he replies, and wonders if he’s lying.
“Alright.” She kisses him on the top of the head. He closes his eyes, and slips out of her grip.
The lizard guy seems to be quite partial to the subway tunnels.
By midnight, Peter is on the prowl, following a trail of shed skin through the humid dark. He sticks to the ceiling, keeping a few meters following distance so that the thick, swishing tail of the lizard stays just within his line of sight.
“Karen, turn on night vision,” he murmurs, and then the tunnel is bathed in a sea of radioactive green light before his eyes.
“Peter, your heart rate is a little elevated. Are you alright?” asks Karen.
Peter takes a long breath. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
The darkness is starting to bother him. It never used to. The blackness had come for him, on Titan. It hasn’t left. He stops for a moment, presses his forehead against the cool brick above him. The lizard man slithers out of sight ahead of him, rounding a corner.
“There’s a train coming in two minutes,” says Karen.
“Where’s the lizard fucker?”
“One hundred and three feet ahead of you, tucked into an enclave that leads to a service door.”
“You think he’s waiting for the train?” Peter asks, more to himself than to Karen, but it’s still nice to hear a response.
“That seems possible.”
A few more paces along the ceiling and he gets eyes on the lizard again, just as the headlights of the train begin to cast a glow down the tunnel. The rhythmic clunk of the wheels across the track crescendos. The hairs on the back of his neck raise.
He’s still trying to work out the physics of his next move when a number of things happen all at once.
The train arrives; the lizard man lunges for the first window of the second car. On instinct, Peter shoots a web that catches the tail of the lizard, and he feels himself slingshot forward as the train passes beneath him. He hits the roof of the subway with a thud that knocks all the breath out of his lungs, then slides down the side until he can wiggle into the window the lizard has already broken through.
Once inside, he takes stock of the scene unfolding: commuters huddling toward the back of the car to avoid the potential line of fire, the gashes in the metal where the creature’s claws have crushed through steel and glass, the momentum of the train still carrying the chaos forward into the blackness of the tunnel ahead. The lizard has already pulled his way forward into the next car, and seems to be working his way toward the conductor.
“Hey, come on, dude,” Peter says, jack-knifing his way through the debris. “You’re not the weirdest shit people have seen on this train, but you’re close.”
The creature turns back to catch a glimpse of his pursuer, just as Peter webs his left hand to the nearest pole and then his clawed right foot to a bench. There comes a roar; Peter leaps onto the ceiling for a better angle and starts webbing down various other flailing, scaly limbs. A moment later and he’s almost finished; the thing is almost pinned.
And then the lights go out.
The black is impenetrable. Peter is vaguely aware that the train has slowed to a crawl, and he can hear the nervous whispers of the remaining passengers, but that represents the extent of his senses. He can’t see his own hands in front of his face, much less the rest of his body.
And if he can’t see his body, then maybe it’s not there.
His heart has begun to pound.
The lizard lets out another roar, and begins to leverage himself, tearing at the webbing that only halfway binds him. Peter is frozen in place, staring into the dark. The sound of his heartbeat blocks out all else. For a moment, all the pain comes back to him. All the fear. He’s disintegrating again, coming apart piece by piece, stripped away into nothing. He feels himself rip apart slowly. Say nothing, say nothing. If he says nothing, it didn’t happen.
He can’t breathe. He pulls up his mask to the nose, takes in great, gulping breaths, but it doesn’t help.
The lizard breaks free. Peter hears heavy footsteps making a beeline for the window and, finally, jerks his arm forward. A web springs forth, but in the dark he can’t make out where it lands. There’s the sound of breaking glass. Peter manages to throw himself into motion again, feeling around for the window the lizard had gone through. Impatient, he instead lays hands on the nearest expanse of glass and throws a heavy punch. It shatters; a brisk bolt of pain implodes across his bicep and forearm. In the black, he can’t make out the extent of the injury, and doesn’t much care to either.
The lights flicker back on. Peter leans out the broken window only to find that the lizard has vanished—the tunnel is empty and silent in both directions.
“Shit,” Peter murmurs, leaning back inside the car.
The commuters, looking frazzled but not particularly surprised, start to filter back to their previous positions. Peter, still breathing hard, looks around to plan his escape, until he notices the blood dripping on the floor.
“You alright, son?” asks a man in wrinkled scrubs.
“Um, yeah, I think so,” Peter says, sparing a tentative glance down at his arm. The suit is saturated with blood from the shoulder down on the left side, and shards of glass stick out at all angles. If he thinks about it, he can feel the pain, just barely, but his mind is still racing too quickly to really anchor him in anything physical. The glass catches the red emergency lights, sending a kaleidoscope of color across the floor.
“You’re just a boy, aren’t you?” asks a woman about May’s age, laying a gentle hand on his uninjured shoulder.
He realizes, abruptly, that his mask is still partially pulled up. The other patrons are all looking at him, a mix of pity and weariness in their expressions. He’s shaking a little; he feels like he might cry.
“I gotta go,” he says, voice unsteady. He pulls his mask down.
“Go ahead, honey,” says the woman.
Peter climbs up, holding his bloody arm close to his chest, and nods once to the crowd of commuters before leaping back onto the tunnel ceiling and slinking away.
The wounds in his arm won’t heal on their own with the glass still embedded. Once he’s above ground again, he ducks into an alleyway to assess the damage. The pain has grown, steadily—it’s now a dull roar in the back of his mind, a persistent wave beating against the beach of his brain—but the bleeding has started to slow down.
“I can help you locate some of the smaller pieces,” Karen says. “But you’ll need tweezers.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he mutters, leaning back heavily against a brick wall. None of the options available to him are good. He can try and make a break for home, but the thought of May finding him covered in blood is somehow too cruel to contemplate. He can’t do that to her, not now. He has to be better.
But the risk of passing out if he tries to fix this himself is an unavoidable obstacle. He needs help. He needs someone.
Of course, he knows what he has to do.
He looks down at the mess of exposed flesh that is his arm, thinks about his anatomy test tomorrow, thinks about irony. About how Tony brought him back to life, yet all Peter can think about when he looks at him is death.
He takes a deep breath, and turns himself in the direction of Tony’s penthouse.